Contempt for ordinary people in the corridors of power

Published by The i paper (6th November, 2023)

The Covid inquiry last week performed an invaluable service. It seemed as if we were watching a savage new political satire amid all the posturing and profanities as key figures in our nation’s pandemic response sought to atone for their actions while settling scores with foes. Yet, if you have ever wondered why so many parts of the public sector seem to have fallen into disrepair, why so little gets done to fix dysfunctional services despite record levels of taxation – and indeed, why there is such distressing lack of faith in our ruling elite – the answers could be glimpsed in those self-serving performances in that grim Paddington building.

This inquiry is costly, overblown and poorly focused. But those hearings revealed with ruthless efficiency the lamentable political leadership that plagues our country. They exposed a floundering political system along with the rampant egos, strutting vanities and dangerous delusions of dismal people in power when our country was struck by a health catastrophe.

Their stunning arrogance and horrifying deceit was shown with stark clarity when Helen MacNamara, a senior civil servant, admitted she would struggle to pick a single day when the draconian rules imposed on Britain with such drastic consequences during those long days of lockdown and social distancing were followed in Downing Street. So much for all the Partygate denials.

Much media attention has focused on the leading players in this dark farce: the selfish buffoon in the starring role, the foul-mouthed and narcissistic chief adviser, the despised health secretary, the disloyal top bureaucrat. We are told by Dominic Cummings that as the pandemic exploded, Boris Johnson was bored with his job as prime minister and more focused on writing a book to clear the heavy costs of divorce. Now we learn this character – supposedly running a nation hit by the most serious public health crisis for a century – had apparently circulated a YouTube video of a man blowing a hairdryer up his nose, even asking his two most senior scientists if this might be a cure for the lethal new virus.

But it is too easy to pin all the blame on a dreadful prime minister. Certainly we see again how Johnson’s post-Brexit accession to the top job damns not only his enablers and lackeys but also an entire political system – which, do not forget, went on to replace him with Liz Truss.

Yet, behind the exposure of government dysfunction and ineptitude, the details of power struggles and pathetic vendettas, lurk profound questions extending beyond the inquiry issues of pandemic planning and response. Is it any wonder, after all, that the health service is so sick, housing in such short supply, prisons dangerously overflowing and social care crumbling when we see how our government and its leading lights behaved, even when the country was confronted by such an epic crisis that threatened so many lives?

Those hearings provided bleak insight into the contempt for ordinary citizens that courses through the corridors of power. Politicians, advisers and top civil servants colluded in breaking their own pandemic rules, then covered up misdeeds. We are told they were “laughing at the Italians” overwhelmed in early stages of the crisis. Caustic misogyny was permitted from the most senior aide while casual sexism appears commonplace, often with drastic consequences. “It is very difficult to draw any conclusion other than women have died as a result of this,” said MacNamara, highlighting lack of provision for domestic abuse victims during lockdown.

Elderly people were viewed as disposable, their lives not deemed worthy of protection if affecting the economy. “Covid is just Nature’s way of dealing with old people,” Johnson is reported to have said dismissively. Bear in mind people dying from Covid lost more than a decade of their life on average.

Most terrible of all is the callous lack of concern for disabled citizens, who suffered most in the pandemic. “Mortality rates were higher among people with disabilities, in particular those with a learning disability,” said Hugo Keith, the inquiry’s lead counsel, in his opening statement. The KC added that “structural discrimination should have been a consideration of central importance to policy-makers”.

Instead, there was scandalous inaction – as laid out clearly in a devastating submission by four groups representing people with disabilities – along with an obsession over protecting politically sensitive hospitals at all costs, even to the extent of sending infected patients into care homes.

I was among those raising concerns of carers supporting some of the most high-risk people – such as my own daughter – from before the first lockdown in March 2020. It was known by June that disabled people were dying in disproportionate numbers, yet their needs and voices were ignored; one 92-page UK Health Security Agency (formerly) Public Health England report that month on disparities in Covid risks and “outcomes” did not even mention them despite chapters and copious tables on age, ethnicity and gender. Inquiry documents show a protective plan was “never fully put into place” after direction from Johnson and Michael Gove (then the minister for the Cabinet Office) that it should proceed at “slower time”. Note how even now, even when we know the damage caused by the Government’s stance, these issues were barely discussed when central figures were interrogated.

The pandemic challenged governments across the planet and few emerged with reputations enhanced. Yet, as we observe our officials and politicians fighting like rats in a sack to salvage tarnished reputations, we see issues being exposed about a duplicitous and out-of-depth elite that harnesses politics to serve their own ends, despite a few good folks trying to do their best in this dysfunctional system. These issues of arrogance, incompetence, selfishness, shallowness and tribalism go beyond Boris Johnson and his toxic team of foul-mouthed aides.

They were an appalling bunch of charlatans who should never have been in control of the country – but ultimately, they were a symptom of the infection tormenting the body politic with such painful consequences.

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